Live From UB Exclusive: The Beatles Monument

Here’s another exclusive clip from the upcoming documentary! In this clip, several veteran Mongolian rockers and rock fans discuss the importance of The Beatles on Mongolian youth at a time when the West was out of reach. What seems at first like an odd monument to The Beatles in the heart of Ulaanbaatar, is actually a unique way to remember that special period of Mongolian history.

Live From UB Gives a TEDx Talk

Last May, I gave a TEDx Talk at Greater Johnstown High School outside of Pittsburgh and now you can see it! It covers a brief history of Mongolian rock music and how the genre has played a role in shaping the new Mongolia.

Live From UB Exclusive

Well, I’m in the throngs of editing “Live From UB”. The sad truth about editing nearly a hundred hours of footage down to less than 2 is that a lot of material just won’t make the cut.

With that in mind, I’ll be posting clips that may or may not be in the final piece throughout the editing process.

Here are two from a day I spent at Amarbayasgalant Monastery with the band Mohanik as they recorded their album.

VIDEO: Kush + Oyuka

Title-Kush-Oyuka

Kush & Oyuka are doing big things to make jazz popular for Mongolia’s youth. The male-female duo started a couple years ago after Kush (lead singer) found himself hooked on the genre. He had been volunteering for Mongolia’s Giant Steppes of Jazz International Festival and reached out to his classmate and top-notch pianist to see if she’d be interested in starting something.

They hit it off and began co-writing a series of songs which they recorded last summer. The album will be the first collection of original jazz tunes written in Mongolian.

Watch Kush & Oyuka’s first music video

I filmed them at one of their regular gigs in Ulaanbaatar last year. Here are two songs from that performance.

HELP FUND LIVE FROM UB

Remember all of those posts I was writing from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia over the past year or so? Well, the final product of all that research and filming is an hour-long documentary called LIVE FROM UB.

I have all the footage and the story, but I need a little extra help to support the editing and post-production process.

I’ve launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to raise funds and awareness about the project. You can check it out here

I am looking for finishing funds to cover the cost of:

Translator, Editor & Assistant Editor, Colorist (to make the colors match), Sound Mixer, Graphics Designer, DVDs and Printing, Press Kit, Festival Entrance Fees, Administrative Costs, Website, Film Insurance

But I’m also hoping to get the word out about this really exciting project. Please tell your friends and fellow Mongolia/Travel/Documentary buffs to check it out!

MORE ABOUT THE FILM:

LIVE FROM UB takes viewers into the small but vibrant rock scene in Mongolia’s capitol, Ulaanbaatar (also called ‘UB’). In 1990 Mongolian’s demanded a new government. Tired of the restrictive lifestyle of their Soviet system, they protested throughout the winter until, at last, their demands were heard and a democratic government and free economy were granted. Throughout their struggles, rock music was there. It was the sound of a new generation and the beat of democracy. Now, over twenty years later, the first generation to grow up in this new society is making their own music. But, unlike Mongolia’s rock pioneers, they have full access to the outside world. They grew up on MTV. They download music in instants. They travel to Korea and China to buy equipment. But this new generation, with the world at their fingertips, is also searching for something much deeper – their true identity. The music they produce is proof of the new urban Mongolian – Eastern and Western, Ancient and Modern, Nationalist and Global Citizen. Through the lens of a few of these bands and interviews with experts, LIVE FROM UB explores what it means to be Mongolian today and how that’s shown through music.

A Lesson from ‘Gangam Style’

Korean pop-star Psy’s video for ‘Gangam Style’ recently surpassed Justin Beiber’s ‘Baby’ to become the most watched YouTube video EVER, with over 840,000,000 views. Psy has appeared on Saturday Night Live and Ellen (two huge markers of success), I ran into several Psy look-alikes on Halloween, and countless parodies have been made, including the politically charged ‘Mitt Romney Style’ video.

It’s been interesting to hear the reaction to this Korean music video going viral from pundits and reporters here in the United States where, quite frankly, we tend to think we’re the best at this kind of thing.

For those of you who haven’t seen the video or don’t know much about it, ‘Gangnam Style’ is a comical pop song making fun of Seoul’s elite. It’s a goofy song with a good beat and a charismatic dancer/singer. It is what a hit pop song is all about. But it’s done something that not many pop songs from non-Western countries have done – it’s made a huge international splash.

One of my favorite reporting teams, NPR’s Planet Money, recently reported on the video’s success and what it means. They explain that this is the result of a calculated effort on the part of the Korean music industry over the past 20 years to develop a strong and competitive pop industry. As Korea continues to become increasingly competitive in the global marketplace when it comes to cars and electronics, so too are they developing their cultural exports. As reporter Zoe Chace succinctly puts it, “It’s what happens when a developing country becomes developed – an infrastructure to make and export culture develops too.”

For anyone in Asia or who follows Asian culture, Korean pop music (K-pop) is nothing new. The girl group Girls’ Generation, is just one of many who have gained huge recognition throughout the continent.

In Mongolia, where urban youth buy Korean clothes, emulate Korean hairstyles, and watch Korean films, Korean music videos were played on the music channels every bit as much as Mongolian and western videos.

However, the music market in the United States tends to favor a) songs sung in ENGLISH and b) songs produced in the west. And so for ‘Gangnam Style’ to be played on radio stations and featured on television programs is quite a leap.

But, not everyone seems so impressed. Conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly dedicated an episode of his show to trying to understand this trend. It seems ‘Gangnam Style’s’ popularity evaded him, and so he decided to deconstruct the appeal. It’s worth watching the 5 minute clip to fully appreciate.

What I think the root of the issue here is that it’s difficult to accept that another nation (an Asian nation, at that) might actually be competitive in the cultural marketplace. As Americans, we have come to accept that the entire world imports our culture. Sports figures, musicians, actors – their names and faces are known worldwide.

There’s some implicit sense of cultural superiority that accompanies this phenomenon. And now, as other nations’ music and film industries are becoming increasingly competitive here in the United States, it seems we’re losing a bit of that notion that what is produced here in the U.S. is obviously the best and should be consumed the world-over.

Korea has managed to do something that the Mongolian music industry is eager to accomplish. They have created an internationally recognized brand of music (K-Pop) that is now on the same playing field as pop music from Australia, Great Britain, and the United States. Granted, Korea has been working at this for decades and has the capital and man power necessary to make the leap from national to international marketing, two things Mongolia is lacking. Still, the K-Pop craze is inspiring to the Mongolian pop industry as musicians and producers develop their own brand by mixing unique Mongolian sounds with the pleasant pop-rock accepted world wide – Mongol Pop.

I can’t help but feel that the success of ‘Gangnam Style’ must be encouraging to these musicians who are looking to not only be active consumers of culture worldwide, but also producers.

Musings: Mongolian Imitation and Innovation

Now that I am more adjusted here in Pittsburgh, PA, it’s time to get back to the project at hand: turning all of my footage and interviews into a coherent documentary!

I spent this morning transcribing an interview I did with anthropologist David Sneath from Cambridge University last summer. He spoke eloquently about Mongolian politics, modern history, and nationalism. Sneath has been coming to Mongolia since it opened up to outsiders in the early 1990s, and lived in Chinese Inner Mongolia before that, so he’s seen it all.

As I sat listening to the interview and typing it verbatim (which I do for all of my interviews), I was struck by one answer in particular. Over the course of my research I continuously came across this pattern of imitation, mastery, and then innovation. In the 1990s, western music was brand new, and thus, exciting. The first grunge band, the first boy band, the first punk band, etc, all started cropping up as Mongolian versions of what they were hearing on MTV or the radio. After a decade and a half of this imitation, however, musicians have started looking toward ways to make the music their own – make it Mongolian. Sneath addressed this trend quite articulately and I wanted to share it with you.

I think there is a sort of series of stages that you can see particularly in music, but in other fields outside. And you could say that in the first stage, you know, it was all about mastery of the new possibilities. So in that sense, it might look like imitation, but I would say it’s actually innovation in a very creative period.

Suddenly, elite Mongols particularly, but quite a lot of Mongolians,  had access to a lot of Western and other styles and possibilities – not just commodities and technologies, but also film, music, dance, all these styles. And they’re mastering them. And it still means they’re Mongolian too, they’re just able to do a proper version of what they’re seeing abroad.

And then, now, increasingly, as that mastery has become more commonplace, the new challenge is to produce something distinctive and new. And I don’t think that is accidental that they’re reaching for Mongolian national themes to do that. The cultural heritage is very strong here. The whole governmental society have promoted it very strongly, particularly since the end of the Soviet period.

And they’re drawing on those resources to put a distinctive flavor on what they can produce. But a lot of  what the young people are interested in is being able to produce things that look and sound and feel as good as the international stuff that they are aware of. And they are often very aware of it. But, once you can do that, make it better, make it distinctive, make it Mongol, and then you’ve got something that might make it marketable and appetizing and attractive to foreigners, but is also a token that they still have a sense of a kind of pride in their own location and roots.

Perspective is a wonderful thing. After living in Mongolia for some time, I became used to the resources and technologies that were available in UB. I also became used to the level of professionalism in music production – from big pop shows to small rock concerts.

But having listened to this interview now that I’ve been back in the United States for a few months, I’m struck by just how many hurdles Mongolians have in front of them and how well they’ve done with what they do have.

I will continue to share my thoughts here as I continue to work through interviews and footage.

Mongolian Rock in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I was happy to contribute an article for “The Next Page” section of yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The piece gives a brief history of Mongolian rock music but also features Mohanik, one of the bands I was following last summer. Mohanik spent last spring and summer preparing to record an original sounding rock album in the countryside. At the end of August, they brought a crew up to Amarbayasgalant Monastery (5ish hours from UB) and recorded the full album in one day. They let me tag along and film the incredible experience. I’ll be posting more on Mohanik as I sift through all of my footage.

You can read the full article here.

Twenty Years of The Ringing of the Bell

Last June, as Mongolians were preparing to head to the polls, I came across a music video on a friend’s Facebook page that caught my eye. It is was called ‘Khonkny Duu – Virtual Version’. ‘Khonkni Duu’, which means ‘The Ringing of the Bell’, is an iconic song in Mongolia. It was written in 1989 as a call for democracy, and quickly became the anthem of the movement.

Since then, dozens of artists have performed it in different styles and adaptations. The most recent rendition is the virtual version – a 21st Century appeal to the youth of Mongolia.

‘Khonkny Duu’ Lyrics

I had a nightmare last night
As if a long arm tortured me,
Strangling my words and blinding me.
Luckily, the bell rang and woke me;
The ring of the bell rouses us.
The bell that woke me in the morning,
Let it toll across the broad steppes,
Reverberating mile after mile.
Let the bell carry our yearning
And revive all our hopes.
 

 

 

More on ‘Khonkny Duu’

A Mongolian Rock Group Fosters Democracy – New York Times 1990

 

 

Note: I mistakenly included one music video that was not “Khonkny Duu” in the original post.

Music Profile: The Lemons

One of the most interesting things about a music scene as small and young as the one in Ulaanbaatar is that every band seems to be the first at something. I have met with members of the first Mongolian grunge, punk, metal, folk rock, and alternative bands – all of which are still performing.

The Lemons are one of these pioneering bands. They would fall into the post-rock, alternative category and were the first to create a Strokes-inspired sound in Mongolia.

The four-person group (plus a regular sound guy) formed in 2004 when they were in their late teens and early twenties. Each member brought different musical tastes to the group, but they all agreed that alternative rock was the way to go. After eight years and two albums, they have now become one of Mongolia’s quintessential alternative bands.

The Lemons’ songs are generally high-spirited with bright-sounding guitar riffs. One of the hits off their first album is a tune about a frog princess. After the male protagonist breaks the spell the princess is under, turning her from a frog back into a human, she thanklessly forgets about him. Another hit song is an ode to Ulaanbaatar. Some of the lyrics are poking fun at the soviet-era obsession with production. But it’s mostly just a peppy song praising their hometown.

The Lemons say their appearance was no accident. When they first formed, they took care to cultivate a sort of hipster style, buying skinny jeans from abroad since they didn’t sell them in Mongolia. Odnoo, the lead singer generally sports dark sunglasses and a leather jacket while the others are a bit more casually dressed.

All three band members that I interviewed said it’s not easy being a rock musician in Mongolia. Even as late as 2004, when they first started, it was difficult to find instruments and a practice space – two key ingredients to any band. Now, guitars are a bit easier to come by, but they still struggle to get amplifiers, mixers and electronic equipment.

Beyond the logistics of acquiring instruments and finding a place to rehearse, it’s not easy to make a living as musicians. While they are one of the most famous bands here, the Lemons still have to play weekly gigs at a handful of bars around Ulaanbaatar to make money. They sign contracts with the bar owners agreeing to play the same six or seven songs each week. It’s typical for a band to show up at a restaurant, play for about twenty minutes, and then be on their way. The fans don’t seem to mind the abruptness nor the repetitive sets, but the bands certainly do. Guitarist Tulga told me, “We are actually bored by singing the same songs and don’t have any interest in singing at these kinds of places. But we have no choice.”

On the other hand, lead singer Odnoo says that playing with the band makes up for it. “The best thing is practicing and playing our own shows,” he explained. “I like to create new things.”

Now, the Lemons are working on their third album, which should be finished by the end of the summer. Their songs have taken on a more electronic sound after importing a special electronic keyboard from the U.S. that helps them create different effects. Before an interview this spring, Tulga showed me some of the unfinished tracks. One song featured a long song singer (a traditional Mongolian style of singing). I thought it worked really well with the electronic sound and added some unique Mongolian flavor to the music. But now they cut the long song, claiming it was too similar to Mongol Pop, a style that blends traditional elements with pop music.

When I asked them what they want a foreign audience to know about Mongolian music, they all agreed that just knowing that this kind of rock music is available in Mongolia is enough. Most foreigners come to Mongolia expecting the traditional herders and horses and don’t pay much attention to the rich urban culture Ulaanbaatar has to offer. For them to simply know about the music scene here is enough, they say.